Thursday, March 22, 2007

Prodigal Praying

The fatherhood of God has a poignancy that is brought to mind each Friday in the Prayer Book’s daily collect: “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

I have said the Amen to that prayer every Friday for most of my adult life. Over the last several years, as a father myself (having a younger son and an older son), this prayer has reminded me that our adult children, to become fully adult, must suffer pain as well as taste joy. And this prayer has met me in my helplessness to prevent that suffering, has united my parenting heart to the pulse of our Maker, and has renewed in me the wise hope that our adult children and their parents, exchanging the way of anxiety for the way of the cross, will find a transforming way of life and peace.

I’m all for extemporaneous and informal praying, but give me that prayer each Friday! (And, yes, a bunch of other favorites without which I’d have a poor sense of direction and precious little to offer at a hospital bedside.)

This prayer is also the collect for Monday in Holy Week, having been heard the day before, Palm Sunday, as the station prayer offered at the steps of the chancel, when the procession comes to a halt and we catch our breath before mounting that way of the cross that will lead us to Good Friday and Easter Day.

Where did this prayer come from? It has ties to Western Massachusetts. The Rev. Dr. William Reed Huntington proposed this prayer for the 1892 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, though it didn’t make it in until the 1928 revision. Huntington’s career included a period as Rector of All Saints in Worcester, and his family’s home on the Connecticut River in Hadley, the Porter-Phelps-Huntington House, is an historic site that some of you may have visited.

Christians are people of the Book, and so we thank God for all the men and women whose use of language has given us lasting tools in our kits and colors in our palette. Anglicans are, of course, people of two books—so it stands to reason that today, when prayer is our subject in the Lenten lunch series, that we should be talking about the Prayer Book.

Know that you’re invited downstairs for soup worth staying for, table companions worth meeting, and a conversation about prayer worth having. Sloane Torres and Alison Kolesar will be our presenters.

Among the ancient stories heard on Easter Eve, stories in which we hear our own, even by which we tell our own, is the troubling one about Abraham binding his son Isaac, intending to offer his life in sacrifice to God, believing that God was calling him to that unimaginable tragedy, that unthinkable contradiction.

What tears at the heart is to realize that by the terms of Holy Week, God the Father is not spared, as Abraham was spared at the last, the anguish of witnessing the death of his Son.

A compassionate father stands in our Gospel parable today. We know enough about how parables work to recognize that Jesus introduces us to this father in order to better acquaint us with God.

I remember Henri Nouwen suggesting that this ought to be called the Parable of the Prodigal Father. The old man is the prodigious one, running to greet the returning Junior as if he’d been keeping watch ever since the boy left home, embracing him so instantly as to get him across those toughest few inches of the journey home, and pouring out on him unconditional acceptance so generous that it’s like he’d kept it bottled up for the day of resurrection, the day his son returned from the death of alienation to the life of family and community.

Prayer being our subject today, I hope you’re hearing this parable describe the God to whom you pray. Make sure this is the God you’re praying to.

And to pay attention to what this parable may give us regarding prayer, consider these two sons. Junior gives us the all-too-common language of what prayer often means, and he does this by those two verbs he uses. First is give, and second forgive. What percentage of your praying has these two agenda items in mind?

Notice that by the terms of this parable, prayer is answered! Give me my share of the property is granted, no questions asked. And Father, I have sinned is silenced in the bear hug that restores his belovedness, reveals that even when he didn’t feel it, he hadn’t lost it.

If the younger son’s contribution to our understanding of prayer is to show that God knows, honors, and exceeds our needs, is it the role of the older son to show us a more challenging agenda for prayer?

Like, facing our anger at injustice, or at least what we experience as unjust.

And facing deeper and more vexing motives than those we show in public (I’ve been working like a slave for you, you old goat!)

And admitting needs that we don’t know yet how to express (You’ve never given me a party like this…)

And opening up our judgmentalism (“This son of yours…”), opening space for God’s Spirit to reframe our view (“This brother of yours…”).

I’m going to close the book on this parable and open another book, and invite you to hear the language of a woman whose gifts of expression have made me (and many) thankful. Mary Oliver’s new collection of poems, Thirst, shows a spiritual traveler finding a sense of home. That appears to be in a liturgical church, perhaps the Episcopal Church. Tell-tale words appear in these poems, like “eucharist” and “lectionary”. I’m going to guess that, following the death of her long-time partner, Molly Malone Cook, Mary found a congregation and a priest or two who have helped her name and address the prodigious God whose stunning creation she has long celebrated.

So here is the first of four poems, “Coming to God: First Days”

---by my understanding of copyright laws, the texts of these poems may not be printed here… you’ll find this book in bookstores and libraries, and copies are available here at St. John’s--

How to pray is addressed in her little poem, “Praying”.

That same thought opens her “Six Recognitions of the Lord”. I’ll read just numbers 1 and 4.

If prayer is a school for obedience, the test is often on hospitality. I love her poem, “Making the House Ready for the Lord”. This is her version of what we hear in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, where Coleridge writes,
“He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things, both great and small.”

Finally, her prose poem “Thirst”.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

How Do You Study for That?

Study is this Sunday’s holy habit or path to spiritual wholeness, the subject of today’s Lenten lunch where the soups are world-class (not to mention free) and where there’s a place set for you. Stuart Crampton and Bill Wootters will lead the conversation today, but they don’t want you thinking that you’ll be studying physics, and to demonstrate that they’ve recruited an intergenerational team of people with wide interests— I don’t spot another physicist among them. Stuart told us last week at lunch that this team will get people considering the role of imagination… so come and see!

A quick revisiting of today’s Bible portions may stir and require our imagination. Moses hears his calling to use his shepherd’s crook to lead not a flock of sheep but a nation, his own Hebrew people enslaved in Egypt, and this divine call comes to him out of a burning bush. God’s voice is not heard until first God has captured Moses’ attention through his eyeballs: the God of nature appears in that mountain wilderness in a quirky way that draws Moses’ eye, reels him in like a fish caught on the hook of amazement, then nets him by name, “Moses, Moses!”

The story begun in that high desert will have a very long shelf life indeed. It will become the story of exodus, God empowering Moses to give birth to the chosen people, Israel, leading them through the long and painful labor of their escape, midwifing them through the waters of partition, the birth canal of the Red Sea. Still we use this story, each Easter Eve, to describe our own precious freedom, and we hear the Gospels tell how Jesus Christ is our Moses leading us out of bondage, and how he is more, he is also the Passover lamb.

And in our second reading today St. Paul rolls the Moses story out more lavishly, as only a rabbi can do, though there’s also a touch of the Baptist preacher in him: “Brothers and sisters, be aware that when our ancestors followed Moses through the sea, that was like baptism for them; and when in the wild they ate manna from heaven, that was a sacramental meal made complete by the water their parched lips longed for. And do you remember where that water came from? How Moses struck the rock with his staff and there it flowed? And do you know that our fathers, telling this story, claim that that rock followed our ancestors through all their forty years of wandering (for they never died of thirst)—and I tell you, that rock was Christ!”

Let it never be said that St. Paul lacked imagination. And it was shaped by the holy texts of Israel, their stories, their images, their questions and answers. Christ the water-spouting rock is echoed in John’s Gospel, where our Lord goes to Jerusalem to observe a great festival, and on its last day he cries out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive…”

Now let’s talk about study. Let’s think of it as what a thirsty person does with his or her thirst. Let’s consider study as a movement of mind in search of spirit, like the traveling of Moses’ eye to that burning bush, or as movement of more than mind, of the whole sensing-intuiting-feeling-thinking capacity of a person in response to the Spirit of God that is ever seeking our attention, our whole attention.

In the Foundations course now underway here, we practice a simple pattern by which a portion of the Bible may be heard and responded to. This simple model comes from the ancient lectio divina, a Godly way of reading, and it was popularized in the 20th century in Latin American and South African churches as a way for members of house churches to nurture one another without requiring the presence of a seminary-trained leader.

A portion of scripture is chosen—today’s Gospel would make a dandy candidate—and is read aloud, slowly, clearly. An appointed leader may offer brief comments to make clearer the original context, the setting, of the passage. Here in Luke, for instance, there’s disturbing news about Pontius Pilate’s latest political violence (who among us doesn’t find each morning’s headlines painful to read?), and this passage wonders aloud why, why do people have to suffer? And how do we relate our own struggle to theirs so as to see ourselves as one human family?

Then the passage is read aloud a second time, if possible by a person of the opposite sex from the first reader. Sometimes a different translation is used, this second time around, to increase the possibility that more of us will be reached by more of God.

Now, what I haven’t told you is the basic task. From the start, each participant knows that the task is to pay attention to the whole passage, but to notice what word or image or verse especially catches his attention. Each person then works with her own little spark, considers what she’s hearing in that micro-gift and, in a house church setting, may answer the question, “What is this word or image or verse calling me, in Christ, to do during the coming week?” Sharing the results, each person in the circle asks for the prayers of everyone to support that action in the coming week. (Or, if you’re using this pattern on your own, the word that has caught your inner ear may be used to move into meditation, a time of silent prayer.)

This pattern of nurture or formation is similar to another model of study known to some of you, Education for Ministry, a four-year program of theological education-at-a-distance connected to the School of Theology of the University of the South, an Episcopal school. Go to EfM’s Website and you’ll find the question, “What can you expect from EfM?” And the answer: “You will find that EfM teaches you how to think theologically, deepens your faith and your understanding of our Christian heritage, and provides you with a new confidence to be Christ’s minister.”

That addresses the question, “Why study?” And so does another Anglican initiative that gets its own acronym, TEAC, Theological Education for the Anglican Communion. This is a project of the Primates of the Anglican Communion, who express the conviction “that all Anglican Christians should be theologically alert and sensitive to the call of God…” They believe that there is a distinctive Anglican approach to theological study which includes a “respect for exploration and experiment” that honors “each local context and, at the same time, calls us together into communion and mutual accountability.” Their project is to develop common standards of theological education worldwide, while valuing “the uniqueness of the work of the Holy Spirit in each place.”

Let’s hope that the Anglican primates come to see how the sword of the Spirit cuts both ways. Let’s hope that their advancing the cause of study will make learners of us all, and open everyone, including the most tradition-bound of the primates, to that “uniqueness of the work of the Holy Spirit in each place.”

The aim of the TEAC Working Group is summed up in a quotation from the Letter to the Ephesians: “…to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ…”

There’s the astonishing ultimate purpose of study, as it is of the other holy habits, worship, Sabbath time, prayer, and giving—the breathtaking purpose put to every cluster of parents and Godparents at every baptism: “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?”

What kind of study does that take? It may be better to ask, “How does he teach?” He teaches by parables, those annoyingly subversive stories like today’s in Luke, the fig tree that hasn’t yet yielded fruit. At the least, this story reminds us that it is by our fruit that we are known. And as parables do, this one requires imagination, enough to reconsider your own life and how fruit-bearing it is. What expectations do you have of yourself? What expectations does God have of you? And how patient is your own stewarding of your life, your manuring of your own fig tree?

Is it too wacky to think of study as the manuring of our garden, the absorbing of what is passed down to us?

In his classic little book, Will Our Children Have Faith?, John Westerhoff uses the ancient Greek word catechesis to embrace all forms of study, including formation, education, and instruction or training. In that Greek word is a root that means “echo” or “sound through”, suggesting imitation of what has been passed by mouth from generation to generation.

Instruction or training, he says, could make it possible for a person to know all about Christianity and the Christian life, but have no desire to live it.

Education, he says, could sharpen a person’s critical reflection on the Christian life and faith in the light of scripture, tradition, and reason—but leave a person uncommitted.

Formation is what shapes a person’s faith, consciousness, and character. It is an intentional engagement by which the Christian community’s culture (its way of life), worldview, and values are transmitted from one generation to another. Even formation isn’t enough, he says.

Catechesis, the Church’s responsibility, requires all three essential styles of study. And it requires the Spirit of God.

Whew! We’d better get cracking. And imaginative, if it is to be passed from generation to generation… by us.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

What Time Is Sabbath Time?

What do the following have in common?

1. Choosing to spend the better part of Sunday morning in church
2. Choosing to spend the better part of Sunday morning recovering from the-week-that-was with the New York Times, a double latte, and WFCR in the background

Could it be that both are examples of how we long for the experience of Sabbath rest?

But, you might ask, what is there of Sabbath in that second scenario? Rest, yes, but Sabbath rest?

Confession time: that second choice is sometimes my first choice when I’m on vacation. You, too? Sure, I’ll feel a pang or two of regret that I’m not finding a church nearby, to worship God and join the people of God. And I’ll pay attention to that pang. Diana and I may keep silence together that morning. I may read and pray the office of Morning Prayer, a way of being with the wider Church in spirit though not body. I’ll find ways to acknowledge that this is the Lord’s Day over and above the other six, the day when the Church recalls and revels in our Lord’s resurrection, a little Easter, the first day of the new week.

My computer capitalizes the s in Sabbath, whether I want it to or not. This seventh day of rest after six days full of creating is the ancient pattern sketched in the Book of Genesis, God setting the example by relaxing with heaven’s equivalent of a good newspaper, a rich cup of Fair Trade, and divine strings in the background. And for Jews, who hold the patent on Shabat, the seventh day is sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work he had done in creation.” Hallowed, because on it God rested. Much is made in the Hebrew scriptures of obeying God, honoring God, imitating God by not working on the Sabbath. The point, of course, is not to encourage idleness, but to clear away a wide sweet space for hearing God’s word, singing God’s praise, gathering as a people of prayer, a people constituted by worship rekindling in them their sense of belonging to God and to each other.

Last Sunday, we recited the Ten Commandments, our custom on the first Sunday in Lent. Number 4 is “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” Our Prayer Book Catechism, interpreting the commandments for modern ears, says that this means “…to set aside regular times for worship, prayer, and the study of God’s ways.” The Lord’s Day isn’t even mentioned.

That’s an intriguing leap, isn’t it? Suggesting that Sabbath time is portable, can be any time, is a quality of time, has about it certain intentions, and is kept by certain actions. Those are, again, worship, prayer, and the study of God’s ways. This Lent, those acations should be sounding familiar: they are three of the five holy habits or paths to spiritual wholeness being explored in our lunch conversations following this service. Today, Celia Twomey and Diana Elvin will lead that conversation about Sabbath time, and you are invited to come first for some of the best soup in town. Reservations are not required: last week, about 40 came, and places are set for about 50, so the math is in your favor.

And, actually, that little aside is more germane to our subject today than it might sound. The math is in our favor. God is the source of abundance, both the fullness of creation and the overflowing cup of Christ’s new creation. We have a place at this table, and at the lunch table downstairs, set in the wilderness of our week, set to feed us in spirit and truth, set to inspire and train us to feed the hungry (whatever day it may be, and whatever the hunger). “There is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.” “So, from the beginning, the fight we were winning…” “For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind…” The math is in our favor, shorthand for the good news that Sabbath time causes us to hear, and feel, and extend to our world.

So, back to those two scenes I sketched at the beginning. You’ve chosen to spend Sunday morning reading the Times or the Globe. Which section puts you in touch with any sense whatsoever that the math might be in your favor? The international news? The Metro section? Let’s not even go to the Business section, not this week. Your java high has kicked in, and you opt for something light-- so you thumb through, and there’s Paris Hilton in her latest escapade… So how has this effort at Sabbath rest improved your worldview?

Let’s ask that same question of our other scene, spending the better part of Sunday morning in church. Eight o’clockers, by the way, pride themselves at having figured out how to have it both ways. But then there are lots of us, on both sides of the choir screen, who make a morning of it, setting up the food tables that support our fellowship, rehearsing the anthem, being with our children, packing and delivering meals… You might say that these folks are working overtime to help God provide our abundance. You might say they’re very much the opposite of the second-cup-feet-up-sports-section-cat-in-the-lap set.

How does this Sabbath effort improve their worldview?

We need to care about that. We need to make sure that our members who come to church and work so that the math does work in our favor taste the sweet side of Sabbath rest. We need to pay attention to the Mary-Martha dynamics among us. Putting that bluntly, a healthy Sabbath for a congregation requires everyone taking turns at all that it takes to keep Sabbath together—for it’s a dirty little secret that it takes work. We need to give Sabbath to one another.

Having said that, I’ll quickly add how delighted I am to be planning a study leave this summer. Combining vacation with the overdue second half of a study leave (the first half came in 2003), I’ll be in jeans and not in my office from mid-July to mid-September. By then, I hope to know more about Sabbath time than I do now.

But I do know that I won’t get Sabbath time by its being given to me. I will get it by taking it, making it, keeping it. Those verbs are puzzling, since they don’t sound very praiseworthy, do they?

But just as my own expectations are what shape my uses of time and energy in working, so also my own expectations will shape my getting of Sabbath. No celebrity team of make-over experts is going to swoop in and reorder my priorities for how to use that wide sweet space that will be swept open in those nine weeks that will be my good fortune this summer.

And darned if that isn’t true about today, and every day. It’s up to each of us to choose to keep Sabbath time. Lent highlights this truth, and shines it like a spotlight on each day of the season. It’s not a season for perfecting a plan. It’s a season for learning how to lay hold on moments, even small windows of time, for the Sabbath-keeping actions of prayer, study, worship, and a yet wider range of action (and inaction) that help renew a sense of who and whose we are, that rekindle the awareness of deep belonging.

On Ash Wednesday, my homilies focused on the words of an Anglican divine who said that compassion is momentary love. Compassion is ignited within a moment, may be received within a moment. Sabbath time, too, by its nature is momentary. Nine weeks is lovely, but nine minutes can also be lovely. Reaching for either, using either, may be understood as an act of compassion towards oneself. Yearning for Sabbath rest is a recognition that the truth about ourselves, and the truth about God, requires a different and deeper engagement than those ways by which we actively (and often reactively) fill our days (and often our nights).

Last week, those of us who use the Book of Common Prayer’s table of daily Bible readings listened to the Letter to the Hebrews. We heard a rabbinic sermon, a riff on Psalm 95 and a reflection on the story of how fear gripped the Hebrew people when they were right on the edge of crossing over to the promised land. They had sent spies to assess the obstacles that lay ahead, and their report paralyzed the people. Joshua was pointing towards Canaan with his outstretched staff, but the people said “No way, can’t do it. We’d prefer the bondage we knew in Egypt to the dangers we don’t know ahead.”

Then it was, says the author of the letter, that God lost patience with the timid, whom he had brought out from Egypt with a mighty hand. “They shall not enter my rest,” he swore.

“Don’t be like them,” exhorts the author. Know that God is greater than your fears. Know that God’s power is made perfect in your weakness.

And those are the knowings gained only by Sabbath rest. Not by working harder, nor even by working smarter, but by being still and knowing God.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

How do We Worship in an Age of Amusement?

Here is Bob Herbert, writing in The New York Times:

“The nation may be at war, and al-Qaida may be gearing up for a rematch. But that’s no fun, not when Britney is shaving off her hair and Jennifer Aniston is reported to have a new nose and the thrill-a-minute watch over Anna Nicole’s remains is still the hottest thing on TV.
“It was Neil Postman who warned in 1985 that we were amusing ourselves to death. I’m not sure anyone knew how literally to take him.
“More than 20 years later, the masses have nearly succeeded in drawing the curtains on anything that’s not entertaining. No one can figure out what to do about Iraq or al-Qaida. A great American cultural center like New Orleans was all but washed away, and no one knows how to put it back together. The ice caps are melting and Al Gore is traveling the land like the town crier, raising the alarm about global warming.
“But none of that has really gotten the public’s attention. None of it is amusing enough. As a nation of spectators, we seem content to sit with a pizza and a brew in front of the high-def flat-screen TV, obsessing over Anna Nicole et al., and giving no thought to the possibility that the calamitous events unfolding in the world may someday reach our doorstep.”

In a culture in which we’re amusing ourselves to death, how do we worship?

We worship at the doorstep of one world: that is, we bring the world with us, and in worship we aren’t surprised to hear about the world. Worship itself helps us understand that there’s a place for discovery and disturbance in a religion whose Christ came to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

But that’s not the whole answer, is it? The world is not what shapes and enlightens our worship. That would be the kingdom of Christ, his way of justice and right relationship, lovingkindness and peace. Which returns us to the question: In a culture that is amusing itself to death, how do we worship?

That’s a timely question because today our Lenten lunch discussions begin, and the first topic will be worship. The others, in order, will be Sabbath time, study, prayer, and giving. At 11:30 a.m. in the lower room, Jimmy Bergin and Sam Coughlin will be ready to lead our conversation, once we’ve enjoyed some soup and bread together. You don’t have to have signed up for this—just come. Soup stretches, and that’s a principle that goes back to a hillside in Galilee…

While we won’t expect five thousand people today, that miracle is a story shaped by the earliest Christians’ experience of worship. Simple verbs tell that story, for Jesus took, blessed, broke, and gave those few loaves and fish which, by the multiplication table of God, became enough. You’ll notice that those same four verbs describe what Jesus did in that upper room on Maundy Thursday, where he took, blessed, broke, and gave bread to his twelve chief disciples. Ever since, his people have kept these actions at the heart of worship, celebrating the holy eucharist as “a perpetual memory of… his precious death and sacrifice, until his coming again.” “Do this,” he said, “in remembrance of me.”

We do those four actions with more than bread. Consider the word “liturgy”, Greek in its origin, where the verb leitourgeo means “to perform a public service”, whether ritually in a temple or actually in society. Leitourgia could be ceremonial (as we heard in Deuteronomy today, the people bringing their first-fruits to the priest to lay before the altar) and it could be public office, public service, public ministry. The basic concept is “work of the people”, what it takes to hold the community together and help it move forward. And not only in worship: think of the Book of Acts reporting one of the young Church’s earliest decisions, to appoint deacons to see that the community’s widows and poor were fed.

On Tuesday, Bishop Scruton will gather the clergy of the Diocese, as he does twice a year, for a day of reflection and reporting. It’s a command performance. We’ll meet in the parish hall of St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, a block away from our own Cathedral and Diocesan House, where the accommodations are much more appealing and effective than any we own. Plus, it’s cool to be ecumenical.

Sometimes at a day like this, the entire time will be set in the context of the holy eucharist. First will be hearing the Bible and, in table conversation, unpacking what we find in what we’ve heard. This may then lead into guided discussion of some practical question that’s apt to be a burning one for most of the clergy, and we’ll work at that for a while. Perhaps a presentation will follow, hearing from someone among us who has done his or her homework on that same burning question. Then at noon will come the Prayers of the People, and lunch. An hour or so of open mic time with the Bishop will then be followed by the Great Thanksgiving and Communion before we’re sent home with his blessing. (A vestry day away might be organized like this. It’s a miniature version of the monastic daily round of ora et labora, prayer and work.)

Let’s review that in terms of loaves and fishes. The Bishop takes authority and calls us together, gets us to sit down in one place for a day of gathering our sorry wits and sharing how our chalices are half full and half empty. That’s takes. Blesses would be our intentional lifting of our lives and challenges and gratitudes to God. Breaks might be all that opens us to one another and gets us sharing, including breaking silence, breaking isolation, breaking barriers between ourselves. Gives may include giving news, giving opportunities to strangers to become friends, giving up a day to do this, and being given a lot to think about. In Springfield, it could even include being given a parking ticket.

So what are you noticing? Yes, it sounds like church, doesn’t it? Catch that point: worship constitutes us, forms among us and within us a sense of being church, not so much here but in the world. I mean, this pattern of taking-blessing-breaking-giving can happen, as you know and probably have experienced, in a school gymnasium, in a field, in someone’s living room. Being church is not meant to be about being in church. Being in church IS meant to deepen, intensify, clarify our work in the world as citizens of the kingdom of Christ.

Which takes me one last time to the dictionary, where as a noun worship is defined as “worth, dignity, holding someone or something esteemed and worthy.” Acknowledging worth. Worth-ship. That’s how the word comes to us from the Old English.

In a culture that is amusing itself to death, how do we worship? We’ve been identifying the key components of worship: God who is esteemed and loved; the kingdom of Christ, which we find worthy of our allegiance; the world from which we have come and to which we return and so we keep with us; and… us, the component of community, the people whose work in ceremony shapes their expectation of themselves in actuality. Us, the two or three it takes (notice that familiar verb) to create community around a table wherever that table may be. Us, the critical mass it takes to support and realize our own expectations of worship.

At Annual Meeting, we noted that our numbers in worship on Sundays appear to be dropping. In the language of expectation, are fewer people expecting to worship on Sundays, or worship here on Sundays? We suspect that’s being observed in more churches than just St. John’s, though, happily, it’s just the opposite in some churches. What all this means is a subject worth our best attention. Since worship constitutes us, we need to take this subject, bless it, break it open, and give it our best. I expect that leitourgia will take us right out into our world to understand our culture. It could bless us by requiring us to talk to people, even people we don’t know! Our inquiry may need to break open some of our patterns that are cherished by some, confounding to others. And what will this give us? Opportunity to cooperate with God at-work in the world, the evolving of this church to better serve the communities among which we’re settled. Perhaps too settled.

Consider Jesus. Straight from his baptism, he is taken by the Spirit out into the desert for forty days of orienteering to prepare him for his public ministry, his leitourgia, shaping in him steadfast dependence upon his Father in heaven, sharpening his resistance to falsehood and his commitment to truth, honing his will to choose always what honors God by esteeming the poor and the vulnerable, as faithfully as a mother gathering her young.

Straight from his baptism. There is the unsettling power of worship. We may need repair at the end of a long week, but the Lord’s Day is the first in a week of new life, and this is not a chapel of ease. If worship trains us well, really gains our attention, we move straight from it to a renewal of fellowship, yes, but also to a practice of daily renewals—prayer, study, service—that do not wait for Sunday’s worship to revive the soul, and do not need Sunday’s worship to entertain.

What we will always need, and want, and rightly expect, is that in worship we communicate effectively, that the Word of God should be taken, blessed, broken open with such clarity and imagination as to cause the hearers to give God the best praise there is, being doers of the Word in daily life. We expect that music should call us to feel, and dance, and go deep with God. And that people should give to one another, one by one, some sense of their great worth and so become the us it takes to bless each other, to break our various bondages, and to give Good News freely to people with whom we live and move and work and play and have our being.

Three years ago, we put a lot of effort into experimentation with how we communicate during the parish eucharist. Over the past year and a half, a children’s sermon has become part of our pattern on second and fourth Sundays, and on first and third, this school year, Worship Outside the Box has been building a new setting and a new 9:00 hour for worship that is informal, enjoyable, brief, simple, imaginative. Those same adjectives are intended to describe a new midweek coffee-house chapel for teenagers, to start soon.

So one last thing we can say about how we worship is that we do it in a variety of ways, in a number of places: in the library for Worship Outside the Box and to end each Foundations class, in the upper room midweek, in classrooms during Sunday School, in homegrown times together perhaps around kitchen tables in our homes, at Sweetwood, in nursing homes, and during hikes on Mount Greylock, once even at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

“Always and everywhere…” we sing, “…it is right and a good and joyful thing…”